by Jim Boyle
Robert Koehler and Virginia Shapley graduated from Elk River High School in 1949.
They were not high school sweethearts. They barely knew each other. But something clicked when the widow Virginia Barnier and widower Koehler connected at their 55-year class reunion in the summer of 2004.
“I knew him, but he didn’t remember me,” Barnier-Koehler recalled for the Star News earlier this week.
The widow and widower shared a nice conversation at the class reunion and agreed to meet for coffee at some point. Koehler never followed up, and Barnier didn’t hold her breath. She didn’t, however, forget their meeting.
So when their paths crossed again at a dedication event at St. Andrew’s Church, Barnier approached her friend and then-Mayor Stephanie Klinzing.
“You know Bob Koehler, don’t you?” Barnier said to Klinzing. “Tell him he owes me a cup of coffee.”
Klinzing later called him. She couldn’t see him on the other end of the line, but he was probably blushing.
“My mother would have been so disappointed,” Koehler said. “She taught us kids when you tell someone something, you do it.”
He called Virginia and apologized profusely. And he invited her out for that cup of coffee he promised.
Things really clicked as they caught up on each other’s lives and discovered their shared interests. They soon were going to movies and holding hands. A year later they got engaged. About a year after that they got married in September of 2007. They celebrated their first-year wedding anniversary in Duluth at a hotel overlooking the lift bridge in Canal Park.
One of the things Koehler fell in love with Barnier over was her zest for life. It was never more apparent than at 2 a.m. when the hotel phone rang to announce a ship was coming through. Virginia had told the front desk staff to alert her.
“She was like a little kid,” Koehler recalls.
He was ready to roll over and fall back asleep, but he didn’t.
“I spent 27 years in the Navy looking at ships through periscopes,” he said.
The two shared in the moment, though, just like they will share Valentine’s Day on Tuesday — probably over dinner with a gift and a card.
“When you get to be our age, every day is special,” Barnier-Koehler said.
‘Never say never’
The couple says their love story is proof of the phrase “never say never.” Koehler vowed after his wife of 48 years, Joan, died, he would never marry again.
One of his daughters once shared with him, however, that Mom once told her that if she died before Robert, she would want him to remarry if he found someone.
The Navy veteran and chaplain for the Elk River American Legion and Elk River V.F.W. met his first wife on Valentine’s Day, 1953, in Schenectady, N.Y. His buddies had dates and they asked him if he wanted to go on a blind date to a movie with a third girl who was tagging along.
He said sure. His blind date was not so sure. He announced to his buddies that night he was going to marry that girl someday. She didn’t think there would be a second date.
It’s no small wonder they ended up together after how the night ended, with his buddies drag racing and the police stopping them as the young sailor, Robert, and Joan, a shy secretary, sat in the back seat of one the cars that had dueled.
They got married in 1954. Koehler gave Joan one red rose on the first Valentine’s Day of their marriage. He gave her two on the second and three on the third. This continued until he had reached two dozen roses and the cost had gone up considerably.
Joan told him to only buy one rose from then on, and so he did. She died in 2001. He returned to Elk River after being away for 55 years.
Barnier never left Elk River after graduation. She and her husband, Clarence, were married 33 years when he died. The couple ran a couple of businesses together including Barney’s Cafe (where The Sunshine Depot is now located). They served “Good Food for Good Folks,” Barnier said.
She would be a widow for 24 years. She adapted fine and says she did not curl up in loneliness.
“I can’t say I was lonely,” she said. “But I always admired couples my age — how blessed they were to have each other. I felt deprived.”
So how did these two not connect in high school?
Koehler grew up on a dairy farm and had very little social life.
“About the only thing I could do was play football,” Koehler recalls. “That was done with the understanding that I came home right after practice.”
After high school he joined the Navy and did not return to Elk River for good until 55 years had passed. It was Orie Sachs who pointed out Virginia at the class reunion. Or was it Cupid?
“Nobody knows what their life will bring,” Virginia and Robert say, echoing each other.
The couple says Valentine’s Day is special to them, but so is every other day. That includes their anniversary day.
The operator of the Duluth hotel they stayed at on their first anniversary promised to reserve their corner room every year on their anniversary. That’s where you will find them on their anniversary in September.
Virginia loves it when those ships come to dock, after all.